Round about 1998 or so, my brothers and I started playing Chrono Trigger. If you haven’t played this RPG, I highly recommend it. Right from the start, the story grabs you, the characters exude personality, the magic owns, AND you get to time travel.
Then about twelve bosses into the game, you meet Magus, and everything grinds to a halt.
Turns out, Magus is completely impossible to beat unless you run around for days on end building up your lexicon of spells and experience points. I did not have the patience for that nonsense. I also refused to accept that there was no short-cut way to defeat him. So, after about three days of trying to kick his ass (note: during these three days, I did NOT go fight forest monsters…just repeatedly wailed on him), I said, screw this, and decided to cheat.
Before the interwebs, cheating on video games required that you purchase a player’s strategy guide. I convinced my parents to order the guide for us through the Nintendo Power magazine, and then I checked the mail every five minutes until it arrived.
(Seriously, I could have been battling forest monsters this whole time.)
Finally, the guide showed up. I flipped it open, and I completely forgot about looking up Magus’s stats and weak spots. The guide had bowled me over with some of the most colorful, wonderful art I had ever seen. I was smitten with it. I wanted to draw like that.
I’d always been interested in art, likely because my awesome parents encouraged all things creative by keeping a box of Crayola colored pencils, markers, and watercolors on hand. My mom did “art talk” in each of our classrooms, too, reading up on the masters and then using the school’s set of library prints to explain pointillism, impressionism, cubism and other lovely things. She would lead us all in copy projects, then, and we’d pin our artwork up in the halls of the school.
Based on that model of instruction, I threw myself whole-heartedly into a copy project, starting with that bastard, Magus. If I couldn’t beat him, then I’d trap him on paper. Took me a few hours of work, but I managed something I was quite proud of, no tracing involved:
I paraded into the kitchen, held the drawing up for Mom…and something amazing happened.
She raised her eyebrows.
Now, I had presented my mother with scads of artwork over the years, produced for summer classes and school projects and the like. But this was the first time I remember her looking legitimately impressed.
It was like being handed the key to the city.
I flew back out to the dining room and immersed myself in copy projects for months. I drew my way through the Chrono Trigger characters, and my parents took one look at the sheaf of paper I’d produced and decided to make my Christmas by buying me my first set of high-caliber colored pencils.
They were Prismacolor, a set of twelve, complete with wax blending stick, and they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
I immediately started work on a new set of characters–Zelda. The players guide for Ocarina of Time had also showed up under the Christmas tree, and I spent the next few months working my way through it, helped along by the 24 color set of Prismacolors that showed up for my birthday.
I was pretty excited about the progress I made:
Fairly soon after I finished with the Zelda characters, I started conceptualizing and writing my novel. The natural progression, of course, was to start drawing my own characters, rather than just copying those that belonged to others. The problem was, taking the leap from copy-projects to original artwork was not particularly easy. I had lots of sweet-action designs in my head, but translating those ideas to paper was ridiculously difficult. I had to come up with the pose, the facial expression, the details of shading and such, without mimicking something else.
My first attempts were…regressive:
Allow me to introduce Faria. Faria, in the original version of the novel was basically cannon-fodder. I obviously put so much thought into her name and design. I think she had about ten lines of dialog in the whole book, and the most “unique” thing she did was wear pink despite her role as a weapon specialist…which, in and of itself, is a trite sort of stab at unique.
Although I put much more thought into other characters, I drew every one of them in this exact post. Every. single. one.
This did not raise any eyebrows.
I was unimpressed with me, too. So, I decided to use our new-fangled internet to do some research into figure drawing.
Holy hell, this was an incredibly frustrating process. The internet in our home was a dial-up connection, and we did not have a dedicated phone line for it. So mom required that we be off the internet for ten minutes at the top and bottom of each hour to make sure she wouldn’t pick up the phone to make utility/social calls and get an earful of screeching data. This meant my brothers and I each got a forty minute increment of time in which we were suppose to use this super-slow, super-unpredictable service to do our thing.
Forty minutes was not a lot of research time. Especially when you had to start your picture download over because your mother forgot you were online, picked the phone up to make a call, and dropped the connection. (I think she did this on purpose some times when she wanted us to come up for supper…)
My research was also limited by the fact that, for some reason, I thought I could only study figure drawing by looking at other fantasy-type characters. So, I didn’t study human anatomy so much as I ended up printing out borrowed poses and faces and then transposing my costume designs onto these figures like colored pencil paper dolls.
Faria’s ears got super pointy for some reason…but at least her pose was more interesting? Still, not riveting, and my ability to draw facial expression was entirely lacking.
I decided to focus on faces round about the time I tail-spinned into a full on anime addiction.
The funny thing is, I had been influenced by anime style all along without really realizing it. The guy who illustrated the Chrono Trigger player’s guide was none other than Akira Toriyama, the artist behind Dragon Ball Z, which I have never watched and never will.
In fact, and largely because of that show, I was under the impression that all anime was about shouting dudes who powered up for six hours in order to blow their opponents to smithereens. I avoided the whole televised genre until my brother informed me that if I would stop being such a reductionist, and give anime a chance, it would totally blow my mind. I told him to prove it, and he responded with the aggressively bizarre Neon Genesis Evangelion.
That show is just…the part where Shinji sits in front of his evangelion for the entirety of the Hallelujah Chorus while the background changes into the psychedelic shades of an acid trip?
Anyway, point proven, but I wanted something a bit more watchable. He delivered with Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Full Metal Panic, Full Metal Alchemist, and the list goes on.
Anyone who has ever watched an anime will be able to see its influence on my art, which was pretty much immediate:
Interestingly enough, as my drawing improved, (even if it became very anime-esque in the process) my character design on the whole took flight–the more complex the drawing, the more complex the character, and vice versa. When I drew this version of Faria, she had developed the ability to shrink down to dragonfly size, hence the look of the wings, and fly around conducting spy business.
Note the date on this drawing, though–2003. This is the year that I entered undergrad a.k.a. the year that my free-time for drawing died.
However, during my time as a history/music major, my knowledge of historical costume, famous artwork, fantastic stories, and life in general exploded about two-hundred fold. I could feel and see this happening in the writing I did in this period, and when I finally had the time to sit down and draw in earnest again, I was pleased to find that unbeknownst to me, my artistic style had soaked up the influences, as well.
Case and point:
I mean, I suppose I rooted her there as I did research on time-period correct clothing and whatnot, but she just seemed to fit there in spirit, as well. Also, you’ll notice she now had a legitimate name–Aquilina Rasputin–and I had started to compose serious backstory for her, looking at her time in the Fay world, her ambassadorship in Atlantis, and her role as The Scribe in the Energist society, interpreting the musings and wanderings of rogue magic. No more weapons and shrinking and dragon fly wings.
I noticed after I finished this drawing that she wore an expression of particular sadness. At first I attributed this to her separation from the world of the Fay, but as I got to know her better, I realized I had drawn something rather out of date, nostalgic, and bittersweet. Something from her past.
Aquilina Rasputin became Aquilina Alexander Rasputin, Quill, my trans* affirmative character. His personality exploded into vibrancy as I explored his transmasculine world. All of a sudden there was sarcasm, joy, love interest, heart break, familial struggle, trial and tribulation, celebration.
I knew Quill needed a new character rendering, but I hesitated for a long time, unsure of my ability to capture so much personality and complexity on paper.
Once again, my parents came to the rescue, this time with the mother of all birthday gifts…the 132 color Prismacolor set.
See, I had been asking my parents for this set of pencils from the moment I began drawing, back when I was twelve. Given my ability at the time, and the expense of the set, my parents kindly told me “not this year” and found other ways to encourage my growing artistry.
This year, though, when I half-way-jokingly implied that I would still love to have that Prismacolor set, my mom nodded, hopped on Ebay, and ordered them.
I was floored. Sixteen years of pining over these pencils, collecting bits and pieces of the set from various art stores (as seen in that case up in the corner of that picture, there) and they were about to be mine.
Holy cow, Mom and Dad, thank you so very, very much.
When the pencils showed up at my apartment, I literally ran in circles like a child. I opened the case, and breathed in the scent of the wax and wood. I immediately dumped them from their plastic holdings and spent an evening getting to know their shades and weights, organizing them in their casings in an intuitive manner.
And then I drew Quill:
He’s still Regency, he’s still pointy-eared, but now he’s confident, assured, and definitely a little bit annoyed that I made him sit down for a portrait. Also, I’ve given him the option of keeping his wings hidden, unfurled, as they conflict with his gender expression.
While I drew this picture yesterday, with the intention of posting it today, on my actual birthday, I came to a final realization.
My art and my writing are finally co-constitutive.
By this I mean, my artwork is no longer the workhorse for my visualizations of characters–it actually expands their respective worlds as much as their story does. It’s by no means professional level artwork, and I still know very little about anatomically correct musculature and what not, but my depictions breath with just enough life that I feel like I’m doing my characters a service by representing them on paper…and they thank me by sharing more of their story as I do.